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Anti-Capitalist Meetup: The Power of the Flea Market by Annieli

The idealized image of the free market is the seasonal trade route.

Flea markets, Free market: not so much a pun as a reality, that informal economies flourish with the inevitable rise and subsequent failure of so-called free-markets, first as deregulated, then as re-regulated as discussed by The Regulation School. Scale is signified here and the expansion of a gloablized economy is not so much the work of invisible or virtual hands (one thread of my research), but the aggregation of so many marginalized sectors of that economy into their own systems of exchange. Bitcoin is but one example on the capital side; bartered labor might be its polar opposite. Alternative and heterodox economies and their institutions have been recent topics of discussion here, so while the implementation and functioning of such economies is paramount, some history to fill some gaps might be useful this week.

What wanton grace, what saucy innocence! What heroic wrestling with aesthetic problems! This nonchalance and originality are worthy of a Heine!
We have deceived the reader. Herr Grün’s literary graces are not an embellishment of the science of true socialism, the science is merely the padding between these outbursts of literary gossip, and forms, so to speak, its “social background”….How right was Heine when he said about his imitators: “I have sown dragon’s teeth and harvested fleas.”(1)

This chapter was published by Marx separately as a review in the monthly publication Das Westphälische Dampfboot in August and September 1847. Before that, in April 1847, Marx had published a “Declaration against Karl Grün”. He stated in it that he intended to publish a review of Grün’s book Die soziale Bewegung in Frankreich und Belgien (see present edition, Vol. 6) in the Westphälische Dampfboot.

For those less familiar with Heine here’s a particularly modern example from 1827 close to the time of the invention of the latent image technology called photography, where the absence and presence of meaning/message of the transmitted information while interdependent are only interoperable by thinking beyond the margins.

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My earlier experience in economic history led me to study with a scholar of medieval economies but he also showed me how to look at the variables involved in plagues and this history of fleas seems hygienically anomalous with the development of things like “flea circuses” or “flea markets.”

Importantly, plague was spread considerable distances by rat fleas on ships. Infected ship rats would die, but their fleas would often survive and find new rat hosts wherever they landed. Unlike human fleas, rat fleas are adapted to riding with their hosts; they readily also infest clothing of people entering affected houses and ride with them to other houses or localities.

The idealized image of the free market is the seasonal trade route with its bazaars or agoras with exchange regulated not only by coinage but also the space in which these transactions occur: formal and informal, official and illegal. The market for speech in public spaces, as we have seen is even more controversial whether OWS or Citizens United. Those who would claim that the web is a free market attempt to base it on both conventional and less conventional “flea market” exchange sites: eBay, gun auctions, etc. many transactions and their prices/costs are less formal and perhaps as invisible or virtual as during any point in recordable or documentable history. Entertainment also accompanied the historical market-route culture so a variety of actions and exchanges developed with the more fundamental trade of basic sustainence goods and services. The space and scale of such activity is by its very actions marginal and gold mining and gold farming are not so different, and economies have treated such insurgent activities at their peril. insurgencies are like fleas, ubiquitous and virtually invisible.

The first records of flea performances were from watchmakers who were demonstrating their metalworking skills. Mark Scaliot in 1578 produced a lock and chain which were attached to a flea. Flea performances were first advertised as early as 1833 in England, and were a major carnival attraction until 1930. Some flea circuses persisted in very small venues in the United States as late as the 1960s. The flea circus at Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, Manchester, England, was still operating in 1970. At least one genuine flea circus still performs (at the annual Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany) but most flea circuses are a sideline of magicians and clowns, and use electrical or mechanical effects instead of real fleas.

Replacing actual fleas by mechanical and electrical effects is a parody of industrialized labor’s technological substitutes and their spectacular globalization. More spectacles to flee are found below the fold as conflict concentrates in urban centers and their peripheries are defined by linear demolition and alienated margins. All of these arterial relations experience blockages or barricades.

1830 Paris barricade

Barricades, or the exit/egress barriers to trade, whether in food or firearms on which I’ve previously written can be spatially visible and invisible, defined as many carcereal elements as many theorists have written, and which have proven to be recently instrumental in regime change. This history is a labor history whose space is defined more informally and certainly represents alienated classes, and hegemonic regimes have treated such insurgent classes’ activities at their peril.

2014 Kiev barricade

1848 Paris Barricade

In the time of the Emperor Napoleon III, the imperial architect Haussmann made plans for the broad, straight boulevards with rows of square houses in the center of Paris, along which army divisions could march with much pompous noise. The plans forced many dealers in second-hand goods to flee their old dwellings; the alleys and slums were demolished. These dislodged merchants were, however, allowed to continue selling their wares undisturbed right in the north of Paris, just outside of the former fort, in front of the gate Porte de Clignancourt. The first stalls were erected in about 1860. The gathering together of all these exiles from the slums of Paris was soon given the name “marché aux puces”, meaning “flea market”, later translation.

Elected president of the Republic of France in 1848, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte became emperor on 2 December 1852 and adopted the title Napoléon III. With his new rank, Napoléon III decided to modernize Paris after seeing London, a city transformed by the Industrial Revolution, which offered large public parks and a complete sewer system. Inspired by Rambuteau’s ideas, and aware of social issues, he wished to improve the housing conditions of the lower class; in some neighbourhoods, the population density reached numbers of 100,000 people/km2 (250,000 people/sq. mile) in conditions of very poor sanitation. The goal was also for public authority to better control a capital where several regimes had been overthrown since 1789. Some real-estate owners demanded large, straight avenues to help troops manoeuvre. Le Marais was one of the rare neighbourhoods almost untouched by the Haussmann renovations To satisfy his ambitions the new emperor had a considerable amount of power at his disposal, enabling him to ignore any resistance, something his predecessors had lacked. But Napoléon III still had to find a man capable of implementing a project of such magnitude. He eventually found Georges Eugène Haussmann, an effective administrator of proven loyalty, and he nominated him Prefect of the Seine in 1853. The two men formed an efficient team, the emperor supporting the prefect against his adversaries, and Haussmann showing loyalty in all circumstances, while promoting his own ideas such as a project for Boulevard Saint-Germain.

Widening of streets: a tool for an authoritarian regime? Revolution needs its labor force as well and its avant-garde has historically required an arrière-garde to sustain its insurgency.

1871 Paris barricades

Many of Napoléon III’s contemporaries accused him of hiding, under the guise of improving social and sanitary conditions, a project for more effective military policing of the capital. By this theory, the wide thoroughfares were constructed to facilitate troop movement and prevent easy blocking of streets with barricades, and their straightness allowed artillery to fire on rioting crowds and their barricades. A small number of large, open intersections allowed easy control by a small force. In addition, buildings set back from the center of the street could not be used so easily as fortifications. This interpretation has been widely repeated and accepted, notably in Lewis Mumford’s writings.

Australian military historian Dr Peter Stanley noticed while visiting Paris that the putative use of artillery in suppressing urban unrest could have determined the city’s characteristic acute angles at intersections. A right-angled grid plan would have resulted guns shooting from side-streets onto boulevards hitting “friendly” forces. By contrast, artillery firing from subsidiary streets at acute angles would both direct an effective cross-fire onto insurgents on the boulevards and avoid the problem of friendly fire. Can this theory be verified from the documents, he asked.

The extent of the work itself shows that Napoleon III’s objectives were, at least, not solely security-oriented in nature. Beyond the spectacular piercing of the main boulevards, city transformations also included the construction of a modern underground network of sewers and freshwater, the installation of an efficient building plan on the surface, and the harmonisation of the architecture along the new avenues.
Yet it is true that Napoleon III was concerned with maintaining strict order.

Haussmann never hesitated to explain that his street plan would ease the maintenance of public order when presenting his projects to the Conseil de Paris or local landowners. When reports of the Paris Commune insurrection reached Haussmann he expressed his frustration at not having been able to implement his reforms quickly enough to make such an insurrection futile. The tactical dimension is thus indeed present, but it is but one element among others; it is perhaps most important where there was question of joining Paris’ main casernes between them. It should also be noted that the police were not one of Haussmann’s responsibilities. His mandate actually reduced the position of préfet de police, as it removed from this office problems such as city hygiene and the lighting and cleaning of its streets.

Many contemporary observers denounced the demographic and social effects of Haussmann’s urbanism operations. Louis Lazare, author, under Haussmann’s predecessor Rambuteau, of an important “dictionary of Paris streets”, considered in 1861 in the journal Revue municipale that Haussmann’s works disproportionately increased state-dependent populations in attracting masses of poor to Paris. In reality, in certain respects Haussmann himself slowed the progress of his renovations in order to avoid a massive flood of workers to the capital. However, critics denounced as early as 1850 the effect that the renovations would have on the social composition of Paris. In a slightly oversimplified manner, they described pre-Haussmannian buildings as a synthesis of the Parisian social hierarchy: the bourgeoisie on the second floor, civil servants and employees on the third and fourth, low-wage employees on the fifth, house staff, students and the poor under the eaves. Thus one building was shown to represent and house all social classes. This cohabitation, of course varying from quarter to quarter, disappeared in its majority after the completion of Haussmann’s work. This had two effects on the dispersion of dwellings in Paris: The city-centre renovations provoked a rise in rents, and this forced poorer families towards Paris’ outer arrondissements

Certain urbanism decisions contributed to a social imbalance between Paris’s wealthy west and its underprivileged east. Therefore no eastern neighborhood in Paris benefited from renovations comparable to the large avenues surrounding the Place de l’Étoile in the XVIe and XVIIe arrondissements. The poor were concentrated in arrondissements neglected by the city renovations. As an answer to this, Haussmann presented the complex creation of the bois de Vincennes forest-parklands that would give working populations a promenade comparable to the bois de Boulogne. Also, the unsanitary quarters “cleaned” by Haussmann contained very few of the bourgeois class. Indeed, the parting of established working-class residential areas may have been another security measure, as a disrupted and scattered community will find it harder to unite and so will pose less of a threat. To moderns this may seem odd, but working-class people were still known as “the dangerous classes” to Parisians and the French in general, and the 1789 and 1848 revolutions, in which workers revolted against the state, were still remembered well. That way, a sort of “zonage” was established that still dominates the distribution of housing and activities in Paris and its nearest suburbs: from the centre to the west, offices and wealthy neighborhoods; from the east and outer rim, poorer housing and industry.

Les Halles 1954

Les Halles was the traditional central market of Paris. In 1183, King Philippe II Auguste enlarged the marketplace in Paris and built a shelter for the merchants, who came from all over to sell their wares. The church of Saint-Eustache was constructed in the 16th century. The circular Halle des Blés (grain exchange), designed by Nicolas Le Camus de Mézières, was built between 1763 and 1769 at the west end of Les Halles. Its circular central court was later covered with a dome, and it was converted into the Bourse de Commerce in 1889. In the 1850s, the massive glass and iron buildings (Victor Baltard Architect) Les Halles became known for were constructed. Les Halles was known as the “Belly of Paris”, as it was called by Émile Zola in his novel Le Ventre de Paris, which is set in the busy marketplace of the 19th century.

Unable to compete in the new market economy and in need of massive repairs, the colorful ambiance once associated with the bustling area of merchant stalls disappeared in 1971, when Les Halles was dismantled; the wholesale market was relocated to the suburb of Rungis. Two of the glass and cast iron market pavilions were dismantled and re-erected elsewhere; one in the Paris suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne, the other in Yokohama, Japan.

The site was to become the point of convergence of the RER, a network of new express underground lines which was completed in the 1960s. Three lines leading out of the city to the south, east and west were to be extended and connected in a new underground station. For several years, the site of the markets was an enormous open pit, nicknamed “le trou des Halles” (trou = hole), regarded as an eyesore at the foot of the historic church of Saint-Eustache.

Les Halles today

Don’t Touch The White Woman! is a 1974 French-Italian farce, an absurd “Western” set in Paris, directed by Marco Ferreri. Marcello Mastroianni stars as a vain General George Armstrong Custer. Richard Nixon is the American president. Buffalo Bill Cody (Michel Piccoli) is here portrayed as a charlatan media impresario. Ugo Tognazzi gives a fictional portrayal of Mitch Bouyer one of Custer’s Native American scouts, who runs a curio shop selling Native artifacts made in sweatshops by white women. Alain Cuny plays Sitting Bull who must defend his people when their homes (apartment buildings) are destroyed by the Union Cavalry. The movie climaxes with the Battle of the Little Bighorn held in a large construction excavation where Les Halles market used to be. The language used to justify the conflict parodies the Vietnam War and the Algerian War.

Centre Georges Pompidou now, adjacent to Les Halles

Centre Georges Pompidou before…

The Production of Space begins with Lefebvre’s premise that ‘space’ as a concept, an ideology, and a practice, has a ‘history’, just like all other ideologically freighted terms. That history develops from what he calls ‘absolute space’, a space lived and developed in coincidence with social and religious life ? what we might call ‘traditional’ space ? to the modern version which he calls ‘abstract space’ construed according to the developing technologies of vision from the Renaissance on: geometrical space, visual (perspectival) space, and the space of power, or phallic space. Modern space is abstract, but not for all that unified ? it contains discontinuities, disruptions, contradictions ? it simply has the will to be unified. And when abstract space is ‘constituted’ ? represented in real space ? it does so in its most reduced form, fragmented and broken according to class divisions and class experience, contradictions that tend to be ignored or illusorily resolved in architectural projects. When considered as social space, space divides into space dominated and space appropriated, where the latter ? as in the appropriation or ‘détournement’ of Les Halles before their demolition ? has potential for the creation of new social spaces.

These new social spaces as spatial economies are our flea markets, free in that they are accessible to all like surveillance and the surveilled, but whose reality is consciously constrained by more invisible, contradictory meanings and values and are the contagion sites for so many global social revolutions, and whether caused by dragon’s teeth or fleas, they are historiographic itches that need to be scratched at one’s peril.

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